(Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment )

That’s the finding of a new study in the Journal of Applied Psychology (hat tip to the BPS Occupational Digest blog) that looks at how various emotions that people observe prompt them to respond. The study asked 375 engineering students to imagine they were a customer service agent, and then listen to a conversation between a customer and a representative. Some of the discussions were neutral; others were openly hostile. The students were then given straightforward analytic problems or creative questions to solve.

The students who had overheard the angry conversation did better at the analytic problems than their peers who heard nothing but nice talk. Some level of anger apparently helps keep people focused on priorities and pushes them to work harder on straightforward tasks. Indeed, the folks at BPS point to a recent study that also shows that organizations where people don’t express their frustrations can be just as harmful as those where it’s overdone.

But just because the students worked harder doesn’t mean they worked smarter. In a similar study by the psychologists, students listened to conversations where the customer was criticized with tough sarcasm. Despite also listening to a form of anger — albeit laced with humor this time — these students performed better on the creative problems. The study also showed that students exposed to sarcasm performed better on problems that required more “cognitive complexity,” or the ability to look at issues from more than one angle, than those that didn’t hear such comments. The researchers suggest that while the underlying anger helped to focus the students, the inherent humor of sarcasm helped to offset the damage that anger can do.  

Of course, I’m always skeptical of how well such academic psychology studies translate into the actual workplace. It’s certainly common sense that too much animosity can backfire, and that not enough of it means people are withholding emotions when they shouldn’t. But the idea that being witness to sarcastic criticisms could actually help people solve creative, complex problems better than those who were exposed to relaxed tete-a-tetes is a thought-provoking idea.

On the basis of this study, I don’t know that I’d start throwing out mocking criticism or biting wisecracks to get my team inspired. But leavening anger with a little humor, and not being afraid to use it when necessary, seems like a good place to start.

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